There are 12 engineering writing tips every engineer needs to know. Because writing is essential in almost every engineering position.
- Emailing clients, sub-contractors, vendors, and managers
- Writing memos, reports, manuals, specs, and proposals
- Documenting how someone can and can’t use your device
- Editing the writing of other engineers
- Customer support
- Pursuing funding for your business
Then from a personal growth lens, writing is a great way to understand complex subjects. If you’ve ever tried to write on a subject you know nothing about, you know what I’m talking about. As you start writing though, you research to learn more to fill in your content gaps.
Let’s now get started with the 12 writing tips.
#1 Read and read some more
Reading technical writing will teach you the following:
- How to structure sentences
- The type of content to write about
- The level of detail to use
Just as important, you learn how to quickly jump into the meat of subjects without any fluff talk. Almost all technical writing takes you straight to the heart of the point. Because no one reads technical writing for entertainment. You just want to learn a technical subject and move on.
Now, I recommend you read your boring dust-collecting textbooks from back in school. And even better, read manuals. Everything these days has a manual with technical writing inside. You can even download random manuals online. For example, check out Square D’s manuals on switchboards.
The more of this type of writing you read, the better your writing will naturally become. Plus, seeing how different people approach technical writing is very beneficial. You can pick and choose your favorite parts from different writing styles.
#2 Think of who your audience is
Ask yourself, who will read your writing? Once you know your audience, you can massage your content accordingly. Because your writing style will change depending on who your readers are.
One day you may write to other engineers, and the next day, to non-technical managers. And if you’re writing to a non-technical audience, you’ll need to water down your technical details.
In short, every audience requires a specific type of content. And your job is to serve your audience exactly what they can handle. Not more and not less.
#3 Practice and practice some more
Like with everything, you need to practice A LOT. So write, and then write some more.
Personally, I try to write as much as my schedule allows. And to be frank, I never was the greatest writer in school. My writing only improved through endless self-practice over the years.
I will say though, technical writing can be more difficult because it’s so dry and emotionless. It’s like cooking a meal without any added condiments. BUT, if you’re trying to lose weight, you only will care about healthy calories. And the same applies to technical writing. Your readers will only care about the technical content.
As added inspiration and as crazy as it sounds, over time, you’ll become fond of technical writing. Once you get good at it, it’ll become enjoyable.
#4 Keep it simple
The trick to best explaining complex subjects is to keep your writing as simple as possible. Don’t add unnecessary content while using big words. You can even find inspiration from the great Albert Einstein who said,
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
So can you convey the same idea in 2 paragraphs versus 4? If yes, then it’s a no-brainer to go with 2 paragraphs. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather read 2 paragraphs versus 4.
This is why after I write a piece of content, I always go through my writing many times. I want to cut the fat and make my writing leaner and easier to understand.
#5 Use an active voice
Technical writing doesn’t typically focus on the past. So, use an active voice in your writing. This will make your writing more authoritative and engaging too. Plus, a passive voice just doesn’t sound right.
Let’s go over an example.
Active voice: mount the charging station next to the building for better access.
Passive voice: better access will be had by mounting the charging station next to the building.
The active voice version reads clearer and is more authoritative. This is what you want.
#6 Proofread your writing
The first version of a document is never the final. You NEED to always proofread your writing. I’m not talking about one read-through. But several.
Whenever I write, proofreading is the most time-consuming part. Frankly, it can be a never-ending process too, especially if you’re a perfectionist.
Now the trick is, when you proofread, space out your read-throughs. I suggest taking a break after you finish writing. Then, the next day, go back and review your writing once again. This always works for me. Because a fresh mind helps you spot things you initially missed.
In your read-throughs, you want to do the following:
- Write to your audience
- Remove unnecessary words and sentences
- Add missing technical details
- Simplify your content
- Eliminate confusions leading to misinterpretations
#7 Take a technical writing course
You’ve taken writing classes since you were a kid to write a certain way. But, there’s a big difference between being a good regular writer and a good technical writer.
Good technical writing requires a special skill set. And this is where specialized courses can help teach and motivate you. You can find a physical class or online course fitting your schedule.
These courses will force you to write a certain way. Then a teacher who knows what to look for will provide you with constructive feedback. I find this to be a great way to pick up good writing habits if you need hand-holding.
#8 Avoid broken English in text messaging
It’s scary how many text messages some people send these days, using broken English. In fact, some people use more broken English than they do good grammar in their day-to-day lives.
Given we’re creatures of habit, you can see the problem here. Texting can lead to poor writing habits. In other words, you’ll carry your broken texting English to your formal writing. And this is why it’s important to not build any bad writing habits whenever possible.
For example, I don’t use broken English when I text. Instead, I make a conscious effort to always use proper grammar and spelling in my writing. Of course, my texts are never as dry as my technical writing. Because I don’t want people to think they’re speaking with a robot now…
Plus, there’s an added benefit to texting without using broken English. You can seamlessly transition from texting to formal writing. Because your mind no longer needs to adjust from janky English to good English.
#9 Discover your passion for writing
Passion goes a long way in any activity you do. The less passion you have for an activity, the poorer your output will be. This includes writing. If you don’t have a passion for writing, an avid reader will know.
Now, I’m not saying you need to love writing more than anything in the world. But, you can’t despise it either.
And I get it, writing can be difficult and even grueling. You’ll have dry spells where you can’t write anything no matter how hard you try. But this happens to everyone, including the best of the best.
Personally, I was never a huge fan of writing growing up. But over time, I began to really enjoy it. What’s more, the better writer I became, the more I enjoyed it. It’s a positive feedback loop.
#10 Be sociable and step outside your comfort zone
Become sociable. Speak with your colleagues. Speak with clients. Also, if you’re an engineer, you probably have a bunch of engineer friends you can speak with too.
All this will force you to communicate technical ideas. In return, the verbal technical talk will translate over to improved writing.
It’s like how reading a lot will improve your writing. Or, if you immerse yourself in a foreign land, you’ll quickly pick up the native language. Even more, you’ll pick up the special lingo.
The trick is though, to speak with people who have impeccable speaking skills. Speak with people who have a deep vocabulary and understanding of technical subjects.
#11 Online tools
There are countless helpful online writing tools to use. One great free tool is the Hemingway app. It’ll help make your writing more clear and simple.
Be selective with the recommendations it makes though. The app will try to oversimplify some sentences. And this sometimes becomes overkill in technical writing.
Then, there’s Grammarly. Even the free version works great to catch grammar mistakes.
Finally, Google offers some awesome courses to improve your technical writing. The courses are easy to follow and they cover the basics of technical writing.
#12 Know your subject well
The more familiar you are with a subject, the more easily you can simplify complex ideas for readers. Because you can’t write about something you know nothing about. And copying material from someone else won’t cut it.
For one, not all published content is accurate. But you wouldn’t know, as you can’t verify the information if you lack the knowledge. And second, most of the time, your writing will need to fit a given mold.
As an added bonus, writing helps you learn complex subjects. Every time I write on a technical subject, I end up diving down many rabbit holes. I self-research subjects to death, to understand them inside and out.
Then at the end of my writing, I end up learning more about a subject than I ever wanted to know. A win-win!
Engineering writing tips conclusion
Becoming a good writer takes time. It won’t happen overnight. And as you’d guess, it’s not an easy skill to pick up.
It took me many years and A LOT of writing to become good. But, it was one of the best investments I ever made in myself. So, don’t shy away from the challenge.
The wider and deeper your skillsets are, the better engineer you’ll become. Plus, you’ll become more valuable in the workforce.
From these 12 engineering writing tips, what’s your favorite? What engineering writing tips have worked best for you?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.